Syria beefs up its armor in Lebanon just as the talks begin

Russian tanks on their trucks, artillery pieces, and house-size battlefield generators jam what in better times is the main highway connecting Arabia proper with the Mediterranean. Long Syrian Army convoys shuttle along in military fits and starts, heading due west into central Lebanon.

From the rocky fields of the anti-Lebanon range one hears the winding squeal of armor moving away to the south. Syria is beefing up its already sizable commitment to Lebanon with three objectives apparently in mind:

* To bolster security in central Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

* To tighten the cordon around the Lebanese Phalangists in their northern coastal pocket.

* And to deter a much-speculated-about Israeli operation into southern Lebanon directed against Palestinian forces.

But all the same, Syria is receiving high-level emissaries from the United States and the Soviet Union to try to mediate the crisis with Israel. Georg Korniyenko, Soviet first deputy foreign minister, arrived in Damascus May 6 for three days of talks with Syrian allies. On May 7 US special envoy Philip Habib comes to Syria en route overland to Beirut, returns to Damascus May 8 for talks with the government of Hafez Assad, and proceeds to Israel at the weekend.

Thus at least until the beginning of next week, the area should be quiet -- but political observers worry that if the talks break down, the crisis could heat up quickly once again.

Analysts believe that the Soviet commitment in Syria, while strong, would not necessarily mean that the Russians would intervene militarily in the event of a war with Israel. But a major confrontation testing the Soviet-Syrian alliance could occur if, diplomatic efforts having run their course, Israel's Menachem Begin decides to strike against the newly placed Syrian antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon or to attack southern Lebanese Palestinian encampments in a big way.

"Certainly the Arab world would react strongly if Israel struck," says a seasoned observer, "but no one wants to go to war over some surface-to-air missiles."

Syrian newspapers emphasize the danger of the face-off with Israel over the missiles and warn that, as the government-run Syrian Times said May 6, Begin is "war-mongering" and is "anxious to kindle a large-scale conflagration in this part of the world, perhaps hoping that his would create a state of emergency that might give his beleaguered government a new lease of life."

This sort of Syrian analysis seems to fall short of bellicosity. And indeed the low-keyed conversations with Damascenes indicate little evidence of an eagerness to go to war with Israel.

For Assad, the ongoing military buildup in Lebanon has to follow a line between neutralizing the Phalangists, who in early April were trying to expand into the Bekaa Valley, and pushing them so far against the sea that Israel jumps into the conflict in earnest to protect its Lebanese ally. Western analysts believe that Assad --siderable security -- is aware of the limits to Syrian military activity in Lebanon, even if the All-Syrian Arab Deterrent Force is stationed there under Arab League orders with big-power acquiescence.

In the latest of the continuing multiparty talks in Beirut, Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam said equal emphasis was being given to "strengthening the authority of the [Lebanese] state and achieving reconciliation among all Lebanese groups." Strengthening Lebanese authority necessarily entails an eventual handover of military control in places such as Zahle, the Sannin Heights, Beirut airport, and the city's east-west crossing points to the Lebanese Army.

Thus the current Syrian Army buildup may well be meant only for the immediate crisis with Israel and for bracing up the Bekaa -- not for an all-out assault on the Phalange.

But the factor that is seeming to puzzle Syrian commentators as much as Western analysts in the region is what measures the Begin government will have to take to play well in its tough political campaign at home.

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